Once called vo-tech schools, today's tech centers stress that they're not for underachievers
David Abbott, 19, of Houston, Washington County, works as an auto technician at South Hills Chrysler Jeep Kia in Peters.
Travis Soukup, 19, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, works on a telephone pole at Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School in Jefferson Hills.
Seth Haskins, 17, a student in the Forbes Road Career and Technology Center emergency response program, lifts a fire hose to the fire tower as Chris Pearce, 18, watches during a practice drill at the school in Monroeville.
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David Abbott knew from the time he learned to fix his dirt bike that he wanted to be a mechanic.
So when he had the opportunity to study auto mechanics at Western Area Career and Technology Center in Chartiers while he was a student at Chartiers-Houston High School, he jumped at the chance.
It turned out to be the right move. Since graduating in 2009, Mr. Abbott, 19, has worked as an auto repair trainee at South Hills Chrysler Jeep Kia in Peters and attended night classes at Community College of Allegheny County, where he plans to earn an associate degree. Chrysler is paying for his education.
"I have friends who are taking out loans to go to college, but I'm getting paid for working and getting my tuition paid," Mr. Abbott said. He aspires to someday be a dealership service manager.
Mr. Abbott was among the 74,217 students across the state in 2008-09 who chose to attend career and technical programs -- formerly referred to as vocational-technical education -- rather than follow a strict academic path in high school.
The programs offer students the chance to graduate with certifications in areas such as auto repair, food handling, cosmetology, computer repair, health assisting and construction trades, which in turn allow them to enter the job market, continue their education at secondary schools -- or do both.
Mr. Abbott had attained his state inspection and emissions license upon graduation, making him particularly marketable, said Larry Winter, general manager of South Hills Chrysler Jeep Kia.
Educators said that despite the opportunities offered at the career centers, enrollment in programs locally and on the state level is down at a time when demand for skilled workers is up.
Mr. Winter joined the advisory board of the Western Area center because he couldn't find qualified young people to work at his dealership.
"Career and technical schools are one of the tremendous resources that communities have that are being underused," said Chester Wichowski, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Career and Technical Education and the associate director for career and technology education at Temple University.
Statewide, enrollment for in-house and free-standing career and technical programs dropped from 100,257 in the 2004-05 school year to 74,217 in 2008-09, the most recent statistics available.
Educators said one factor contributing to the decline is the closing of programs that did not focus on high-priority occupations as designated by the state Education Department and Department of Labor and Industry.
In addition, local career and technical center directors say, more students are being required to take remedial classes connected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to include the technical courses in their schedule.
But the biggest obstacle to recruiting students to career and technical education is the perception that students in those programs are underachievers, educators said.
"The biggest problem that I am having is the stigma attached to what is considered blue-collar work and trying to get parents to accept the fact that their kids are forgoing college to go into that line of work," said James Knapp, a guidance counselor at Bethel Park High School.
But Mr. Knapp and other educators said the line between blue- and white-collar jobs is fading as many of the traditional trade jobs now require computer knowledge and the use of sophisticated machinery and tools.
In Allegheny County, career and technical education is offered to students in 41 suburban school districts at four free-standing schools formed by jointures of school districts. Pittsburgh Public Schools and McKeesport Area School District offer their programs at their high schools.
The four jointure schools are A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless, Forbes Road Career and Technology Center in Monroeville, Parkway West Career and Technology Center in North Fayette and Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School in Jefferson Hills. Students who attend the centers spend half of the school day at their home schools and are transported to the career centers for the other half.
All four have seen a decline in enrollment in recent years. Steel Center dropped from 705 students in 2005-06 to 623 in 2009-10 but is projecting an upswing this year to 693. Parkway West expects 562 students this year, compared with 605 in 2005. Forbes Road is projecting enrollment at 727, down from 760 in 2005.
A.W. Beattie is projecting 632 students, which is down from 707 in 2006 -- the most recent year available -- but up from 554 last year. Richard Herko, president of the A.W. Beattie jointure board, said he believes last year's drop in enrollment was due to about $20 million in renovations that required having major sections of the school torn apart.
Western Area, which serves part of Washington County, saw enrollment dip from 540 in 2005 to a projected 460 this fall.
At McKeesport Area Technology Center, enrollment this year is projected to be 350, which is down from an average of about 400 in recent years, said Patricia Scales, director of career and technical education.
In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the 2008-09 enrollment -- the most recent year available -- was 3,109, down from 3,399 in 2004. But the statistics show a deeper enrollment dip in 2006-07, when just 2,889 students enrolled.
In May, the Pittsburgh school board approved an overhaul of the district's high school career and technical education, which will include a $38 million capital investment. The plan will divide the district into three regional clusters that will offer all students programs in health careers, business and finance, information technology and culinary arts. In addition, some schools will have signature programs, such as robotics or auto body repair.
Educators say they are trying to get the word out to young students about the benefits of career and technical education.
At Parkway West, a career exploration day was held for the first time this past year for ninth-grade students, director Jack Highfield said. About 900 students attended.
Mr. Knapp plans to visit elementary and middle schools in Bethel Park to talk to students about the opportunities available at Steel Center and to dispel the myth that college-bound students should not attend the programs.
Center directors said programs in electronics, robotics, engineering and nanotechnology have produced graduates who have gone on to study those areas in college.
Mr. Herko said the robotics program at A.W. Beattie has sent three students to Carnegie Mellon University in recent years.
Mr. Knapp said he watched his daughter, Casey, 17, who will be a senior at Trinity Area High School, struggle with negative attitudes from friends and even a teacher as she considered attending Western Area center for the health assistant program.
Those attitudes, he said, prompted her to not attend Western Area during her sophomore year, but she enrolled in her junior year and has been happy with the decision. "I can imagine it now, walking down the hallway in a hospital, stethoscope around my neck, medications in my hands, living my dreams of being a nurse," Casey wrote in an essay for her English class.
She hopes to pass the Certified Nursing Assistant exam before graduation and to attend nursing school.
According to annual reports from the state Education Department, health assistant programs are popular and viable across the state.
The state reports indicate the most popular programs fall under the title of trade and industrial education, which encompasses a large list of programs that include construction, cosmetology, electrical, graphics and other traditional trades such as plumbing, welding and carpentry.
Also popular are programs in the health fields and business programs, particularly those involving computer repair and programming.
Program choices fall along predictable gender lines, with trade and industrial arts having the fewest females enrolled while health occupation programs have the most females enrolled.
Locally, the career and technology centers are aligning their curricula with state guidelines that are based on the job market and positions that pay enough to support a family.
At Steel Center, a pole-climbing course was introduced as part of the electrical construction curriculum last year. Six utility poles donated by Duquesne Light are on the property for training of students who think they would like to be line workers in the utility and telecommunications industries.
Last year, a fear of heights prompted half of the students to drop the course. But for those who stuck it out, the reward may be annual wages of $41,960 to $55,280 -- the industry average.
At the Forbes Road center, a new fire tower for drills by the emergency response students was built last year at a cost of $25,000. During the dedication in May, students were able to show off their emergency response skills in a real-life situation when they cared for one of their classmates who fainted at the ceremony.
A.W. Beattie closed a hotel program, but a Mandarin Chinese program was started and is offered not only to Beattie students but to students at districts throughout the area via teleconferencing.
At Parkway West, machine tool carpentry and electrical construction programs were closed in recent years but digital multimedia and information technology programs were added.
Jeffrey Finch, principal of Hampton High School, said positive messages about career and technical training must be getting through because this year the number of students his school will send to A.W. Beattie is expected to increase from an average of 35 in recent years to about 60.
Joseph Iannetti, director of Western Area, said students should think of career and technical schools as legitimate avenues to a career.
"We are not telling people we are an end," he said. "We are part of the process. We can help you get into a field and get an education."
First Published August 26, 2010 12:00 am